Dr Leon Saltiel: We need to fight stereotypes around Jews in Greece

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By Nick Siriodis.

Dr Leon Saltiel was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. He graduated with honours from the Department of International and European Studies at the University of Macedonia and continued his studies at the Department of International Relations at Georgetown University, where he was also a Fulbright Scholar.

He has over 15 years of experience in the fields of diplomacy and human rights, working in non-governmental organisations within the United Nations and other international organisations. He holds a PhD in Modern Greek history at the University of Macedonia, focusing on the Holocaust of the Jews of Thessaloniki.

Dr Saltiel has also published articles in important academic journals and specialises in the persecution of Jews in Greece. His publications include The Holocaust in Thessaloniki: Reactions to the Anti-Jewish Persecution, 1942–1943, which won the 2021 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research, and ‘Do Not Forget Me’: Three Jewish Mothers Write to their Sons from the Thessaloniki Ghetto.

Dr Saltiel’s ‘The Holocaust in Thessaloniki.’

He is also a member of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece and of the Greek delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). He currently serves as Director of Diplomacy, Representative at UN Geneva and UNESCO, and Coordinator on Countering Antisemitism for the World Jewish Congress.

Dr Saltiel is a man who has devoted a significant part of his life to a sensitive issue, which may be about the period of the extermination of Jews in WWII, but it seems more relevant than ever, especially with the extreme right having such momentum within Greece, as well as worldwide.

He will be in Sydney, New South Wales this week to give a lecture commemorating the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Thessaloniki Jews.

The lecture is being organised by the Consulate General of Greece in Sydney, supported by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. It will be hosted by the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, University of Sydney, at its premises on Thursday, April 20 from 6pm.

On Monday, April 24, Dr Saltiel will also be speaking on the subject of the Jews in Thessaloniki at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum.

Dr Saltiel

Ahead of his arrival in Australia, The Greek Herald spoke with Dr Saltiel about the purpose of his trip, but also about the Jews of the past and present.

In the interview, he delves into the evolution of the flourishing Jewish community in Thessaloniki for over two millennia. He also explains how his lectures will focus on important moments such as the creation of the Jewish community in ancient times, the impact of the Inquisition, its integration into the Greek State, the Holocaust and the current life of the Jews in Thessaloniki.


Asked about the purpose of his trip to Australia, Dr Saltiel said: “I was invited by the Consul General of Greece in Sydney, Ioannis Mallikourtis, as there is a large Greek and Jewish community in the city.”

“We will talk about the Holocaust, where thousands were exterminated by the Nazis in the death camps during World War II. We will speak in schools, with agencies and we will give interviews in the presence of journalists,” he added.

The Jews of Thessaloniki.

At a time when the extreme right has again come to the fore in Greece, with memories of the Golden Dawn party and its racist speech still fresh, we asked him if this specific issue is current and important.

“Someone could consider that it does not only concern the Jews. When the Nazis bloodied Europe, in addition to the six million Jews who were killed, millions of other people also lost their lives,” Dr Saltiel said.

“You quite rightly mention the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Golden Dawn, which is a direct threat to democracy. Anti-Semitism is a disease for society. We have to fight and fight for respect and mutual appreciation in diversity.”

How many Jews of Thessaloniki were killed in World War II and how many are currently living in our country?

Dr Saltiel replied that “about 50,000 Jews were killed in Thessaloniki, over 90 percent of the population in the city. At this moment, there are about 5,000 living in Greece in total. Most of them, around 3,500, are in Athens, another 1,500 in Thessaloniki and a few hundred in six other communities.”

The Jews of Thessaloniki.

Are Jews in Greece facing racism today or not?

Dr Saltiel was clear: “They are Greek citizens, who live normally like everyone else, with equality, freedom, they are constitutionally protected, they have the same rights and obligations as the rest.”

“In everyday life there are manifestations of anti-Semitism, but mainly out of ignorance,” he added.

“For example, when I was a soldier, they asked me if I was Greek when hearing my last name. Also, there are still many conspiracy theories such as those about the Zionists. It’s coffee shop talk, it’s not violent. Of course, many efforts have been made in recent years with the help of many and the percentage of ignorance has decreased.”

Finally, we asked him why people should attend his lectures in Australia. He replied that “people will learn the Jewish history in Greece and in the city of Thessaloniki from ancient times until today, but also the evolution of Greece as a nation state through this prism.”

“We will talk about nationalism, the need to fight hatred, the need for democracy,” Dr Saltiel added.

“We need to fight stereotypes. We want to get in touch with the Greeks of the diaspora and we look forward to meeting them in person, exchanging views and answering questions and concerns.”

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